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February 28, 2005

New book documents first statewide civil rights movement in Florida

By Jennifer McNulty

Decades before the Montgomery bus boycott, African Americans in Jacksonville, Florida, organized streetcar boycotts that forced the city to abandon efforts to segregate the system.

Photo of book cover

African Americans fighting for their rights in Florida "created the first statewide civil rights movement in U.S. history," says UCSC historian Paul Ortiz.

That little-known act of rebellion is one of many instances of African Americans
organizing against white supremacy that historian Paul Ortiz, an assistant professor of community studies at UCSC, documents in his new book, Emancipation Betrayed.

Handed down within black families but unknown among historians, the story of black resistance in Florida from Reconstruction until the bloody election of 1920 is an inspiring chapter of U.S. history.

Written for a general audience, Emancipation Betrayed focuses on the African American struggle for voting rights while documenting networks of secret societies, fraternal organizations, labor unions, and churches that black Floridians relied on to organize and sustain themselves in the state with the highest lynching rate in the country.

“They created the first statewide civil rights movement in U.S. history,” said Ortiz. “This book is really about what happens when people are faced with political terrorism--how they challenge that and find the courage and self-confidence needed to put together a social movement.”

Through oral histories, Ortiz learned about the courageous actions of African Americans who fought for their rights, often at enormous risk to themselves and their families. Sam Dixie, an octogenarian, told of blacks taking up arms in self-defense and shared his childhood memories of a shootout in his hometown of Quincy, Florida, between blacks and the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan had found out about a secret oath taken by members of the Colored Knights of Pythias, a black fraternal organization, to fight for their rights, and Klansmen burned the lodge and killed several knights during the shootout.

That memory was the catalyst that “completely changed my understanding of American history and social change,” wrote Ortiz in the preface to Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

Ortiz described going “back and back” in time, picking up threads of resistance. “We are not taught to see African Americans as protagonists fighting for their own rights, but that’s exactly what these people did,” he said.

Black Floridians found inspiration in the activism of their parents and grandparents. In 1901 and 1905, black residents of Jacksonville organized boycotts that forced the city to abandon efforts to segregate the streetcar system. (The system was ultimately segregated, however, with the intervention of the state legislature.) “In the long term, these organizing campaigns taught African Americans how to challenge the system,” said Ortiz.

The Colored Knights of Pythias, which at one point claimed one in six African American men in Florida as members, was a vital avenue for organizing, according to Ortiz. After World War I, the knights passed a resolution requiring each member to pay his poll tax and register to vote before the 1920 election or face expulsion. Churches and other organizations promptly followed suit. Years of organizing culminated with the 1920 presidential election in Florida, when the state sanctioned white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan to use violence to prevent blacks from voting. Between 30 and 60 African Americans were killed, according to cautious estimates by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and scores were wounded and displaced.

Despite copious evidence of political terror presented during a congressional investigation, the election results were certified. The Florida movement was defeated.

Despite the tragic outcome, the legacy of early black activism in Florida is a powerful one. With roots in the days of slavery, it set the stage for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, said Ortiz.

“Black Floridians’ courageous struggle for emancipation established the grounds for our modern expectation that all adults in the United States have the right to vote,” he said. “This is a brutal part of our history, but we are the beneficiaries of their struggle and sacrifice.”


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